It’s been a long few years on Rocky Top. The Tennessee Volunteers have struggled for the better part of over half a decade and seem to be a far cry from being one of the winningest programs in SEC history.

The downward spiral truly began in 2008 when Tennessee went 5-7, including a homecoming loss to Wyoming. That season– and to some, several years of mediocrity– led to the firing of Philip Fulmer.

Fulmer held the position of head coach at Tennessee for 16 years (and was part of the football program for a total of 33). Before Fulmer was Johnny Majors, who coached from 1977-92. So for those keeping score, that’s two coaches in a span of 31 years.

Since 2008, Tennessee has had three head coaches. Lane Kiffin brought enthusiasm, recruits and an improved record, but left for USC immediately after his first season. To say his quick fix replacement, Derek “Precious” Dooley, did any coaching during his three years in Knoxville would be too kind and, quite frankly, undeserving.

In December 2012, Tennessee hired former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. As someone who attended Jones’ introductory press conference, the buzz in the air wasn’t as much excitement as curiosity. His track record seemed impressive, entering with a 50-27 career record and a 2013 Big East Coach of the Year Award. But that was the Big East, this is the SEC. Who was this Butch Jones guy and why was he the choice made by athletic director Dave Hart? Why should a fan base whose team went from feared opponent to laughing stock of elite SEC programs feel optimism  for the near future?

For Jones’ to win over Vol fans, he needed to make an excellent first impression. Check. Not only did Jones present his plan for laying the foundation to rebuild Tennessee football during his opening presser, but he also professed his love and admiration for the program’s tradition.

The next step was salvaging a depleted recruiting class. Check. Jones managed to add 12 recruits to the 2013 class and kept the commitment of ten players, including would-be standout freshman wide receiver Marquez North.

If you thought that was impressive, just wait until next year. Yeah, that phrase is getting tiresome in the Volunteer state, but it proved true on the recruiting trail. Despite a 5-7 debut season, Jones managed to put together a top-5 class for 2014. Now, many will point out the fortunate factors that benefited Tennessee. For one, the “Legacy Class” included many players with paternal ties to Knoxville. Also, the sudden talent surge in Tennessee high school football, a state that would occasionally put out a top ranked national prospect, but not several.

Whatever the case, Jones and his staff brought interest to Tennessee. Top prospects such as Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone were overlooking UT during the reign of the prior regime. For these players, their recruitment at Tennessee began with Jones and he deserves the credit for laying the “Brick by Brick” foundation off the field.

The biggest questions facing Jones are: Can he produce? How many years before the fans grow tiresome? How many bricks will he lay before he completes his house? When does his window of opportunity close?

What we saw from Tennessee last season should not be written in permanent ink. Every coach gets a pass for a disappointing first season. Some make an immediate jump in year two, others see their hot seat turn up heading into year three. But the opportunity for coaches to show progress and improvement is usually around three years.

Last season, there were low points. The Florida game saw Jones rush a redshirt freshman into the starting quarterback role hours before kickoff. The Alabama game was what you would expect between a two-time defending champion vs. a program with a new coach and a roster lacking depth and experience. And, well, Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt, again.

But there were also high points. Tennessee managed to get its first win against a ranked team since Oct. 31, 2009 (oddly enough, both games were South Carolina). Also– despite one outcome resulting in a controversial, overtime loss– Jones managed to outcoach both Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier.

As the 2014 season rapidly approaches, Tennessee fans wonder whether this year will finally be “next year”. In the Volunteer state, “next year” seems to be a more anxiously awaited date than any holiday, anniversary or birthday combined. That mentality of “we’ll be back” or “wait until next year” has, unfortunately, become the mindset of Volnation for far too long.

What once seemed to be subpar or mediocre now seems like an extremely successful season in year two. Six wins and a bowl game. Ten years ago, a Tennessee team going 6-6 during the regular season would have called for Fulmer’s job. Now, its a sign of Jones’ progress to give his young, talented recruits some experience heading into the future.

At the same time, a notable percentage of Vol fans either A. Haven’t watched their team play a game since the 2007 SEC Championship or B. Are blindly optimistic and have ridiculously high expectations. To these people, who will undoubtably cast the blame on Coach Jones should he lose to highly favored teams, I write the following prediction…

Realistically, Tennessee will have its best chance to catch up to the top-tier SEC talent teams when Jones’ stellar freshman class has more experience at the collegiate level. If Tennessee struggles this season, it’s not the end of the world. Yes, it’s the same thing we’ve seen for last few miserable seasons, but being realistic, Tennessee’s time to shine is on the horizon and fans must give Jones and his players patience to grow.

Given the proper personnel of a competitively talented and experienced roster with depth, Jones has a great chance to win a championship at Tennessee. Will it be this season? Not realistically. Will it be next season? That’s certainly more possible. But, if Jones can stay in the good graces of the Tennessee fans and higher-ups, the “Brick by Brick” process will likely produce a mansion sometime around 2016.